Skip to main content

Frederick Douglass to Sydney H. Gay, October 4, 1847

1

FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO SYDNEY H. GAY

Albany, [N.Y.] 4 October 1847.

MY DEAR FRIEND:—

I have just completed a course of four lectures in this city1Douglass, Charles Lenox Remond, and Joseph C. Hathaway addressed a meeting at the State Street Baptist Church in Albany, New York, on 29 September 1847. Albany Evening Journal, 29 September 1847.—and on the score of order and respectability, I have never seen my audience excelled. One of the most encouraging and gratifying circumstances connected with the meetings relates to the place in which they were held. The State street Baptist Church, a large and commodious building, was readily and gratuitously thrown open to our use, and everything done by the officers of the church, from the minister down, to make the meetings beneficial to our sacred cause. This treatment, in such a place, may very properly be regarded as a hopeful sign of the times.

Like most other metropolitan towns and cities, Albany is by no means remarkable for either the depth or intensity of its interest in reform. No great cause was ever much indebted to Albany for assistance. Many reasons might be given, accounting for the tardiness of its people in matters of reform in general, and Anti-Slavery reform in particular. I believe that many of its wealthiest and most influential families have either been slaveholders, or are connected with slaveholders by family ties, and it is not too much to presume that they have not been entirely purified and cleansed of the old leaven.21 Cor. 5:7. Their influence is yet visible on the face of this community.

“The evil that men do lives after them.”3Julius Caesar, act 3, so. 2, line 81. Thirty years ago, and slaves were held, bought and sold, in this same goodly city;4In 1785 the New York state assembly debated and rejected a proposal mandating the immediate emancipation of the approximately 20,000 black slaves in New York. Fourteen years later, the legislature finally agreed to free all slave children born after 4 July 1799, but required them to keep working for their former masters until they reached age twenty-eight for males and twenty-five for females. In 1817 a final enactment ordered all slaves born before the previous law to be freed on 4 July 1827. Phyllis F. Field, The Politics of Race in New York: The Struggle for Black Suffrage in the Civil War Era (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982), 26, 32; Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago, 1967), 180–84, 213. and in the darkness of midnight, the panting fugitive, running from the steeples and [d]omes, swam the cold waters of the Hudson,5The Hudson River stretches 315 miles through the state of New York, originating in the Adirondack Mountains of northeastern New York and flowing southward toward New York City. Cohen, Columbia Gazetteer, 2:1326–27. and sought a refuge from Albany

2

man-hunters, in the old Bay State.6Massachusetts. The beautiful Hudson was then to the slaves of this State, what the Ohio is to slaves in Virginia and Kentucky. The foul upas7A poisonous tree of the East Asian tropics containing a cardiac glycoside, used for poisonous arrows. has been cut down for nearly thirty years, and yet its roots of poison and bitterness may be felt in the moral soil of this community, obstructing the plough of reform, and disheartening the humble labourer. Many efforts have been made to awaken the sympathies, quicken the moral sense, and rouse the energies of this community in the Anti-Slavery cause but to very little purpose. Many of the best and ablest advocates of the slave, including George Thompson, of London, have wrought here,8During a visit and lecture tour of the United States in 1834, George Thompson traveled through upstate New York, where he may have spoken in Albany. Rice, Scots Abolitionists, 68–69. but apparently in vain. So hard and so dead are its community considered to be, our lecturers pass through it from year to year without dreaming of the utility of holding a meeting in it: all are disposed to think Slavery may be abolished in the United States without the aid of Albany. Like Webster, of New Hampshire, they think this a good place to emigrate from.9The expression “good place to emigrate from” is attributed to numerous locales and famous personages, Scotland being the most frequent point of departure. A New Hampshire native, Daniel Webster quit a promising political career there to relocate to Boston, Massachusetts. ANB, 22:865–68.

Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal,10At the time Douglass wrote from Albany, the Erie Canal was the most important waterway in the United States. The state of New York had authorized funds for the project’s construction in 1817. When completed in 1825, the 360-mile-long canal ran from Lake Erie, at Tonawanda, to Cohes, on the Hudson River near Albany. Traffic on the narrow channel of water was heavy; nearly 7,000 boats arrived in Albany from western New York in 1826 alone. In 1836 New York began widening and reinforcing the canal, and construction on this enlargement continued intermittently until 1862. As the sole waterway linking New York City to the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal was responsible for the rapid economic growth of New York during the antebellum era. Some middle-class reformers, however, believed the Erie Canal was responsible for attracting boat hands, horse drivers, and laborers whose behavior the reformers criticized as immoral and lewd. Ronald E. Shaw, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1794–1854 (Lexington, Ky., 1966), 239–42; Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817–1862 (New York, 1996), 138–71; Cohen, Columbia Gazetteer, 1:949–50. and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.

The general character of a community may be ascertained by the tone and spirit of its press. A virtuous community will not support a vicious press. Albany is not without respectable newspapers, some of them are justly to be regarded among the best in this country; and yet I undertake to affirm that there is not to be found in the whole North, a city of equal population supporting half the vile trash in prints and newspapers, pandering to the mean and general prejudice against persons of colour.11As the state capital, Albany was a center of political journalism. Douglass’s negative characterization of the press in the late 1840s probably did not include the Evening Journal, edited by Thurlow Weed, which was a moderately antislavery Whig and later Republican periodical. Weed’s principal competitor in Albany was the Argus, an unswerving Democratic, antiblack, and proslavery paper. The Albany Atlas, edited by William Cassidy, was the voice of the local Barnburner wing of the Democratic party, but merged with the Argus in 1856, evidencing the healing of the rift in that party. The Daily Knickerbocker, edited by Hugh H. Hastings, often expressed nativist sentiment. In addition to these established newspapers, Albany was the site for many short-lived periodicals founded to influence the outcome of a single election or legislative session. Thurlow Weed, Life of Thurlow Weed Including His Autobiography and a Memoir, 2 vols. (1884; New York, 1970), 1:362–63; 2:232; Brian Greenberg, Worker and Community: Response to Industrialization in a Nineteenth-Century American City, Albany, New York, 1850–1884 (Albany, N.Y., 1985), 2–3, 134–37; Van Deusen, Thurlow Weed, 55–56. We are almost without the protection of Law or Gospel here, and we are constantly made the object of attack by the dastardly conductors of these villainous papers.

Mean and corrupt as those conductors are, one would think the honour even of a blackguard and a bully, would forbid his selecting persons so helpless as ourselves. His ambition is low indeed, who is satisfied by trampling upon those who are already weak and defenceless. There is something that commands the respect if not the admiration in two equals arrayed against each other—but to see a big-fisted wretch smiting a sick and

3

emaciated man, is a sight so cruel and disgusting that I wonder that the dastard himself is not ashamed of his cowardice. The coloured people are defenceless. They are outlawed from political rights and social respectability. In these circumstances is it generous? is it fair? is it witty?—or bold to make them the special objects of newspaper attack? Magnanimous Albanians judge! In this city, the religious and irreligious, the rude and the refined, are equally opposed to our holy cause. Diverse in all things else, they are agreed in this. The rude and irreligious base their opposition on their hatred of the negroes. The refined and religious talk learnedly and piously of time-honoured and time-hallowed institutions. This is the head-quarters of New York law and politics, and the community are accustomed to give importance to political precedents rather than to moral principle. And to make the sage inquiry, as to what saith the Law, rather than what saith the Lord. I know not how it is, nor will I attempt to explain—but it does seem that State-houses, Law Schools, and Theological Seminaries, are all unfavourable to a healthy development of the moral sentiment, and of the spirit of progress, in the community where they may exist. Like huge trees that cumber the ground, they seem to extract so much strength from the soil, that more useful though less powerful plants may not grow in their vicinity. Under the dark shadow of the State-house, reform withers, droops, and dies. Its cold stone walls and mouldy parchments are too stiff and gloomy for the warm heart and elastic spirit of philanthropic reform. Deliver me from cities; a country audience forever, before whom to advocate the cause of liberty and humanity. And yet it must be confessed that some of the noblest of mankind, and the most determined and fearless reformers are to be found in cities; and in this, Albany is not altogether unlike many others.

There is a man in this city whose voice is seldom heard or his person seen in the street, who lives unobserved by the community, who never attends a public meeting or makes any public demonstration; but whose heart, hand, and home, is ever ready to cheer on the advocates of every righteous cause. He is the only man with whom I have ever met in this country who seems familiar with the benevolent works of what in England is known as the Animals’ Friend’s Society.12Lewis Gompertz founded the Animals’ Friend Society in London, England, in 1832. The society was an offshoot of the first animals’ rights organization, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, which was formed by William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton in 1824. Although the movement attracted many British reformers, particularly abolitionists, it remained on the fringe of most activism and held little appeal for Americans until Henry Bergh established the American Society for the Protection of Animals in 1865. Until then, the only American tract on animals’ rights was a collection of essays, The Spirit of Humanity and Essence of Morality, published in Albany, New York, by O. Steele and D. M’Kercher in 1835 and reprinted as The Spirit of Humanity and the Animal’s Friend in 1855. James Turner, Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind (Baltimore, 1980), 40–47. To this man the cause of the slave is indebted more than to any other in this place. It is needless to mention his name—among so few he will easily be selected.

On one evening during the meetings I had the assistance of that venerable patriarch in the cause of liberty and humanity, Isaac T. Hopper.13Isaac Tatem Hopper (1771–1852) was a New York bookselier and, with Lydia Maria Child, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard from 1841 to 1845. His involvement with abolitionism began before 1800 when, while living in Pennsylvania, he aided fugitive slaves in their escape. He belonged to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society until his relocation to New York in 1829. There he became active in the American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass first met Hopper in the “Tombs” jail in New York City, where Hopper was incarcerated for helping a fugitive escape to Boston. Hopper had become a Quaker in 1793, but the sect disowned him in 1841 for his abolitionist activities. Lib., 14 May 1852; NASS, 21 May 1852; Lydia Maria Child, Isaac T. Hopper: A True Life (Boston, 1853); ANB, 11:202–03; NCAB, 2:330. His presence, in plain dress, with hat on, made some sensation in the audience.

4

He opened the meeting with a few appropriate remarks, which were very well received. He expressed his great gratification at meeting with persons of different religious persuasions, and political opinions, on the Anti[-]Slavery platform;—gave some interesting anecdotes from his almost inexhaustible fund of such illustrations, and exhorted the coloured persons in the audience to civility and Christian forbearance, under the embarrassments and hardships which it is their presence lot to endure. He administered a short, but pointed, rebuke to the Society of Friends, for their cold indifference to the cause of the slave, and gave us a word of encouragement to persevere in our noble work, by alluding to the progress the cause has already made. Long may the good man live. Long will his good deeds be remembered, especially by the hundreds whom he has been instrumental in delivering out of the hand of the spoiler.

I am glad to inform you that there is one minister in this city whose influence will I am sure do much to advance our righteous cause in this place. It is Mr. Warren,14The Reverend Edwin R. Warren, a Baptist minister from Albany, New York, was a trustee and general agent for the American Baptist Free Mission Society. NS, 28 January 1848. of the church in which I lectured, who, though not agreeing with me on several points connected with this question, was nevertheless highly pleased to allow me a fair hearing before his congregation, and to do everything he could to make my meetings here successful. All our meetings were well attended. Many of the members of the Legislature were present, and many of them probably heard an Anti-Slavery lecture for the first time.

Since my lectures here I have held a meeting in Poughkeepsie.15Douglass, Charles Lenox Remond, and George Hathaway spoke at the Congregational Church of Poughkeepsie, New York, on 5 October 1847. Poughkeepsie Eagle, 9 October 1847. Here I was welcomed by that friend of universal liberty, Charles Vanloon,16Charles Van Loon (1819–47), a Baptist minister from Poughkeepsie, New York, was an active temperance reformer and advocate of the American Baptist Free Mission Society. In the fall of 1847, he accompanied Douglass on part of his western tour and died soon after his return to Poughkeepsie in late November of the same year. NS, 3 December 1847. who, you will remember, a few weeks ago was called to account by the junior editor of the Albany Patriot17In October 1841, editor Charles T. Torrey renamed the Tocsin of Liberty, his Liberty party newspaper, the Albany Patriot. Later James C. Jackson and then William L. Chaplin attempted to keep the financially struggling weekly afloat. Chaplin finally abandoned the effort in June 1848. Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:297; Stanley Harrold, Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828–1865 (Baton Rouge, La., 2003), 82, 105, 154. for being found in company with “vipers,” such as Remond, Hathaway,18Charles Lenox Remond and George Hathaway. and myself. Though sternly reproved and faithfully admonished he does not seem to have repented of his sin, if sin there was in being found in our company. He is one of the few noble spirits whose energies are not to be bound or his sympathies narrowed down to the narrow limits of a sect, either in religion or politics. My meeting in Poughkeepsie was held in the Congregational Church. It was crowded to overflowing, and I have no doubt that a good impression was made upon the audience.

I have also been attending the coloured National Convention which was just closed its sittings in Troy.19On 6–9 October 1847, sixty-six delegates attended the “National Convention of Colored People and Their Friends” in Troy, New York. Forty-six of the delegates hailed from New York, fourteen from Massachusetts, two from Connecticut, and single representatives from across the United States. Douglass, representing Massachusetts, headed the committee appointed to draft the convention’s position on freedom and slavery. After some deliberation, the final report on the matter reflected Douglass’s emerging leadership in African American political circles, as well as his adherence to Garrisonian principles of moral suasion and criticism of proslavery churches. The convention also debated the formation of a national black press, which Douglass opposed on the grounds that various cliques would dominate a national black newspaper, thus making it less appealing to the African American public. The convention eventually passed a resolution supporting a national press, but Douglass abstained from voting. By the time of the next National Negro Convention in Cleveland in September 1848, he had already begun publishing the North Star. Howard Holman Bell, ed., “1847—Troy: Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored People, and Their Friends,” in Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830–1864 (New York, 1969), 1–32; Howard Holman Bell, A Survey of the Negro Convention Movement, 1830–1861 (New York, 1969), 86–91, 94–98; Ripley, Black Abolitionist Papers, 4:33n. It continued four days. I may give you some account of it next week.

Yours,

F. D.

5

PLIr: NASS, 14 October 1847.

6

Date

October 4, 1847

Type

Publication Status

Published